Just walking up to restaurant Terra is transformative. Located on sleepy Railroad Avenue, just off St. Helena’s Main Street, the building’s rough-cut stone exterior, windows and deep-green planters are consistently full of colorful seasonal vegetables, herbs and flowers, all of which set the stage for what husband-and-wife team Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone have in store for their guests.
Entering through the heavy doors continues the transformation and is akin to visiting a friend who moved from the Napa Valley and is now living in a charming alleyway walkup in Paris. Inside, exposed stone walls and wooden beams cause the welcoming sounds of happy voices to echo, and irresistible aromas of savory roasting foods envelop the entire space like a comfortable blanket.
“When I walk through the restaurant during service and I hear the clinking of glasses and dishes, the soft voices of laughing and talking and the smells of something wonderful coming from the kitchen, it is my nirvana,” Sone said.
A match made in Hollywood
Sone grew up and trained for his culinary career in Japan before moving to Los Angeles in 1984, where he became the chef at Wolfgang Puck’s new Spago, a hip nouvelle-cuisine inspired hotspot that helped solidify Puck as a leader in California’s culinary landscape.
“When I trained in Tokyo other chefs would go to France or Italy and come back with recipes that they’d follow perfectly — the idea was to re-create the exact same dish, but when I went to work with Wolfgang the emphasis was more on creativity and creation — it was a real epiphany,” Sone said.
Doumani also worked at Spago at the time, having trained as a pastry chef under Nancy Silverton and others. Doumani was also familiar with the Napa Valley. Although she’d lived in Los Angeles as a child, she had moved to the Napa Valley when she was 14 with her father, Carl Doumani, founder of Stags’ Leap Winery.
Finding the right spot for Terra
“We’d been looking for a location for our own restaurant for about a year,” Sone said. “We had looked in L.A. and even at a couple of places in Yountville (including the French Laundry).”
“We both wanted a restaurant, but Hiro wanted one in the Napa Valley,” Doumani said. “I’d lived here growing up and knew it was pretty sleepy compared to Los Angeles, so I was a little reluctant to give that up unless we found the perfect spot.”
One morning, after she had worked a long shift at Spago, Lissa’s father called, waking them up to say there was a building for sale and they should come up and see it. They did, and a few weeks later they were the new owners.
“When we saw it we really, really liked the building,” Sone said.
A building with a tasty history
The Terra building is a beautiful 19th-century stone structure that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1884, the space had been a foundry, a glove factory, a chicken hatchery and even the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum before becoming a series of higher-end restaurants.
The first food was served in the building in the mid-1960s when the bohemian Hatchery Cafe opened and served “natural food” to both hippies and the curious alike, eating while they might listen to folk music played by local musicians.
In the 1970s, Philippe Bonafont and his bombastic, opera-singing partner, Chef Gregory, opened La Belle Helene Restaurant, which they eventually sold to Marc Dullin, who cooked French-inspired meals with menus peppered with words such as terrine, pâté, demi-glace, tourne and soufflé.
Beyond La Belle Helene, by the early 1980s St. Helena had grown into a culinary destination with a distinctly French bent, with restaurants like Miramonte, Le Favour-Cafe Oriental (one of the first French-Thai fusion restaurants in America), Trilogy and the nearby Auberge du Soleil and Domaine Chandon.
After La Belle Helene was sold in the late 1980s, the building spent a few months as Duckworth’s restaurant (presumably named after Taylor, Duckworth and Co., which had originally built the building) before becoming Terra.
Doumani and Sone had found the perfect location for what they wanted to create — a culinary experience housed in a beautiful structure where they might serve well-executed, expertly prepared food without a strict limit on the food’s origin, pulling ideas and food traditions from around the world.
Figuring out how to run a restaurant
“We’d never run a restaurant before — I was a pastry chef, and Hiro was a chef, so we needed lots of help,” Doumani said. “Luckily for us, most of the staff had stayed on and we had help from one of my father’s local friends, Barbara Neyers, who had been one of the founding chefs and managers at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.”
Since then Terra has grown into one of the most enduring and endearing restaurants in the valley, receiving numerous accolades, including the rare distinction of maintaining a Michelin star since 2007 (the first year that any Bay Area restaurants were included in the yearly guide), Sone’s being named “Best California Chef” by the James Beard Foundation in 2003 and Doumani’s managing the front of the house that garnered the 2008 James Beard’s Outstanding Service Award.
Two culinary destinations in one
In 2011, Terra obtained a liquor license and used the opportunity to create two separate spaces — a more intimate 30-seat dining room and a larger, more casual 40-seat dining area, referred to as Bar Terra.
The two rooms have different menus, although many items can be found on both. Regardless, all menu items highlight the art of combining Japanese-, Mediterranean- and Middle Eastern-influenced cuisines with regional and seasonal ingredients.
All items are offered à la carte, but a prix-fixe menu option is available in the dining room that can include four ($89) to six courses ($126) with guests picking their selection from more than a dozen savory options and five different dessert options.
The items specific to the bar include the popular Bar Terra Ramen made with a classic Japanese soy broth that is customizable but comes with Chashu jowl, pig trotters and Jidori Egg ($18.50).
Soft lighting, floor-to-ceiling wine racks and original art decorate the walls, while Hoshigaki persimmons dangle from the ceiling, adding an air of authenticity and hominess to the stony space.
My tasting experience started with an espresso cup of creamy crab bisque that was fresh and had a hint of hot spice, reminding me that the local Dungeness crab season had recently begun.
Next the delicately prepared and colorful salmon crudo was seamless in both execution and its broad range of simple flavors, including roasted onion cream, trout roe and crunchy pickled leeks. This was followed by a brilliant rendition of Chawanmushi, a Japanese savory silky custard with chunks of tender lobster and flavors of bonito, kombu and egg.
Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” floated in from unseen speakers, and guests talked, sipped and ate. I wondered what the chef might make of tonight’s sounds and what nirvana might be like. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
The broiled sake-marinated black cod with shiitake mushrooms, a shrimp dumpling and shiso broth was divinely textured, exquisitely balanced and sublimely satisfying precisely because it seemed to honor both the fish itself and also the Japanese culture that inspired the dish.
After, an umami-rich roast of lamb-shoulder stew atop creamy polenta all dressed with paper-thin slices of locally foraged porcini mushrooms showed a masterful understanding of flavor and texture.
The dessert, inspired by Doumani’s Lebanese heritage, was a wonderfully balanced — not too sweet — phyllo dough Bisteeya filled with apples and almond butter, poised on a pool of tangy yogurt and cinnamon. There is also Chocolate Bourbon Ice Cream, Coconut Marshmallow With Fudge Sauce and Thunder Crackers (found on both menus, $13) that I will certainly try next time.
Throughout the evening, I enjoyed tastes of various local wines (the list is distinctly Napa, with the wines by the glass all from Napa), and I learned about each offering from both the attentive waitstaff and Craig Bistrong, the wine director.
Stephan Hebding from La Condesa has recently joined the team as bartender and is continuing the tradition of, as Doumani put it, “using good products to make creative cocktails that span a broad range of drink styles. Not just using trendy new alcohols but using fresh ingredients and a clean palate.” Both Sone and Doumani have their own special cocktails on the menu, his is the “Hirotini,” and hers is the “Old School Margarita.”
As a parting gift Doumani handed me a takeout box that contained one of the delightfully wrinkled Hoshigaki persimmons that had been dangling from the ceiling, drying and curing for weeks. The next morning, I savored slices of the surprisingly sweet and apricot-like flavors on my morning granola and pondered my most recent experience at Terra.
The meaning of Terra
Terra turned 30 this year, and thankfully, Sone and Doumani have signed another 10-year lease. They have built and maintained a tradition of expertly prepared foods and attentive but not too fussy service, all of which is comfortably infused with different cultures and food traditions.
What makes Terra different from many other restaurants is that it manages to express creativity while honoring the origins of each dish and ingredient — not in a hyperbolic, food-as-entertainment manner but more in the vein of, “We really love food and we want to share a special evening with you.”
This philosophy was evident when I watched as Sone or Doumani interacted with their guests, not as customers but more like old family friends. Terra is a place where one feels at home and comfortable, knowing that the hosts have thought of everything, providing both the security of the familiar but also the thrill and charm of being surprised and delighted.
Restaurants such as Terra are of the rarest type, and because of the nature of our rapidly changing world and a California food culture with most restaurants not lasting more than a couple of years — much less multiple generations — I accept that at some point in the future everything must go back to the earth. But my hope is that for all of our sakes, 10 years from now Sone and Doumani once again decide to grace the world with another extension of their lease.
“The meaning of Terra for me is about coming back home to the earth,” Sone said. “There is a lot of food out there that makes you exercise your brain, but for me eating is all about speaking to the heart.”